An opportunity for new talent to rise in Washington politics

An urban prosecutor's office is a natural stepping stone. Now that the King County job is open, the escalator will fill with quality candidates.
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Norm Maleng. (King County)

An urban prosecutor's office is a natural stepping stone. Now that the King County job is open, the escalator will fill with quality candidates.

Among the many influences of King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who died from a heart attack Thursday night, May 24, were those on statewide Washington politics. What if Maleng had been able to move up to governor (he lost in the 1988 and 1996 primaries), pulling the state Republican party back to a moderate course? Even if he had only won the nomination, he would have shown that a centrist Republican could win a statewide primary against conservative pressures. The state, and the GOP, would have been quite different. Instead, we have a Republican Party that can't seem to nominate statewide figures who can win a general election. In the Legislature, the GOP is staring at small-minority status for many sessions to come. And by staying in the prosecutor's office since 1979, Maleng slowed the up-escalator for local politicians. That office could be a classic stepping stone, particularly for urban Republicans. It does interesting work, which attracts talent. You build a bright, young staff of people who can become a future political network. You command media attention by filing big cases and by being in the home of the state's biggest media outlets. From there you can run statewide, since you are not branded as a Seattle liberal the way a mayor gets tagged. Rather, you are a law-and-order urbanite. The natural path upward from local prosecuting attorney is to state attorney general and then governor or U.S. senator. Accordingly, Maleng's many admirers in his Republican Party had a curious mix of emotions about him. They dearly loved the man, greatly admired his work as prosecutor and mentor, and ardently prayed that he would get elected governor or attorney general (the latter he tried for and failed to win in 1992). But Maleng was as unbeatable locally as he was unelectable statewide. Maleng was not alone as a logjammer. Congressman-for-life Jim McDermott of Seattle sits in a kind of "tenured" seat that many covet for its high visibility and safely Democratic super-majority of voters. Seattle's City Council, which used to create stars who could rise to higher office (Tim Hill, Randy Revelle, Martha Choe, Bruce Chapman, John Miller, Norm Rice), no longer seems to attract such talent and has become too liberal for statewide voters. King County does a little better on this score, with John Spellman and Gary Locke both moving up from executive to governor, and former King County Council member Rob McKenna now the state's attorney general. The suburban-urban straddle of the county produces politicians with broader appeal. At any rate, one logjam is now broken, and there will be quite a scramble of talent to get onto the Maleng escalator. A suggestion: Pick a candidate who is a rising star, not an elder statesman. (Jenny Durkan? Reagan Dunn?) Norm Maleng had deep roots in an earlier style of Northwest politics, which he learned working as a young staffer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson. This is a genial, bipartisan, heartfelt politics, with an eye for cultivating talented young staffers who create a swarm of "bumblebees" who keep the ideals and the network alive for decades to come. The two Norms – Norm Maleng and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, also a Maggie protege, best sustained that admirable tradition. That political tradition set such a high standard that the surge of lawyer/politicians seeking to fill Maleng's shoes will likely be of a high caliber. That would be yet one more tribute to this beloved man.


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